Lord Bryce, professor of history at the University of New York wrote: “Political party system is based upon a paradoxical ideology. It breeds factional elements of disunity, sowing seeds of diversity while at the same time, strengthens and consolidates the nation. It proves almost a blessing to a nation when it checks the government from becoming tyrannical and autocratic, but in the prostituted spirit, tears the nation, into clashing groups leading the country to the worst form of demoralisation.”
Bryce’s statement summarises the political environment in Malawi. Since the country embraced democracy, various political parties have been formed in the belief that they are pillars of good governance.
As argued by a renowned British scholar, politician and writer Benjamin Disrael, no government can long be secure without a formidable opposition.
However, the multi-party system in Malawi seems to have bred disunity among political parties, especially between opposition and ruling parties. This has almost turned them into competitors or adversaries.
United Nations country resident coordinator Mia Seppo has observed this, and twice she has warned both the ruling and the opposition parties to stop politicking on everything.
“I believe the lion that needs to be tamed is mistrust. The voices calling for change in Malawi see the politicisation of everything eating away much needed patriotism and affecting the quality of the public discourse,” Seppo told The Nation in February.
Her sentiments can be validated at political rallies, where political figures are heard attacking their opponents. Sadly, the practice has turned the two sides into enemies who can barely work together.
What President Peter Mutharika said on Friday when he held a development rally in Nchalo that he no longer listens to the opposition because they always oppose everything he says, is cause for worry in a democratic society.
“They just oppose anything without offering solutions. I will help them to be in opposition for the next 20 years,” said Mutharika.
For the better part of last year, the opposition has been on Mutharika’s neck, attacking and pressing him to resign and pave the way for others to run the government, arguing he has failed to solve the challenges facing the country.
How much the country loses in such fights is another area of research.
Boniface Dulani, a political analyst at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College political analyst observes that since the dawn of multiparty system, the relationship between government and the opposition has been frigid.
“We seem not to have fully embraced and internalised the culture of multi-party politics. Since the transition in 1994, governing parties have always viewed the opposition with suspicion and not as legitimate groups that happen to hold different ideas for the betterment of the nation,” he says.
Dulani believes this is because political parties are formed to obtain power, and so the opposition parties are always seeking ways to wrestle that power away from those that hold it.
“Meanwhile, the ruling party at any particular moment, is seeking to preserve and retain that power and not lose it to the opposition,” he explains.
Additionally, Dulani wonders if there is a clear avenue for the opposition and government to work together. He argues that despite having the Parliament, which provides a platform for the opposition to show its relevance, government still has it all as it takes government’s will to listen to the opposition and other critical voices.
“Our constitutional set-up makes the opposition part of government through the Legislature. This channel provides plenty of opportunities for the opposition to interact with the government directly and influence policy and offer alternative solutions. The main issue perhaps, is that Parliament does not meet frequently and when it does, the government is unwilling to listen to opposing voices,” explains Dulani.
He adds that the forum is not a closed circuit as there is nothing that stops the President and his Cabinet from calling leaders of opposition parties and other opinion makers to get together and discuss pertinent issues affecting the country, but still this is dependent on the relationship of the two sides.
Another Chancellor College political analyst, Michael Jana, corroborates that the disunity between the opposition and ruling party is a product of power politics.
He explains: “The power politics and the winner-takes-all logic defines the relationship of the two sides. Since the opposition is government in waiting, with the potential to win or lose, it is logical to expect the ruling party to use every opportunity to score political points at the expense of the opposition with the aim of perpetuating its power and vice versa.”
Jana says the clearest avenue for the opposition to reach government is Parliament because there are several key roles which the opposition are supposed to play, but argues that the government still has room to thwart the opposition’s influence through actions such as cutting or denying funds to parliamentary activities such as parliamentary committees.
By analysing these arguments, it is evident that unless the fights are stopped, the two can hardly complement each other.
Minister of Information and Civic Education Patricia Kaliati admits the trend but blames it on the opposition for not wanting to accept that someone is in power.
“Our opposition needs to swallow its pride and accept that there is time for one to govern. Imagine they know the President lives in Lilongwe and came to Blantyre for some work and they follow him there and hold rallies where they attack and continue to oppose pertinent issues. It is a testimony that they are fighting government and not helping government. This is sign of immature democracy,” says Kaliati.
But Dulani, in an earlier interview, said the way the May 20 2014 Tripartite Elections were handled affected the relationship between the two sides that some parties think they were robbed of the power as such are failing to accept that they are in opposition.
He, however, advises the two sides to put national interest first and consider each other as partners that just happen to have differing ideas on developing the country. He adds that disagreement over policy and ideology should not breed enmity or violence.
Jana warns on the consequences, saying while it is inevitable, if power is considered as an end in itself, the culture has the potential to slow down human and national development. n